This month’s rapid and unexpected disappearance of the Arctic sea ice is perhaps the first time that global warming (AGW) has really shown an ugly side that can’t be easily put down to just weather and/or luck. But something that surprises me about the sci-fi genre is that AGW’s worst case scenarios don’t seem to have made much impact on the genre – there don’t seem to be many stories which make it a central part of the setting or the narrative, even though it’s rich with possibilities and very topical. I guess I could be wrong, but it seems to have slipped under the sci-fi radar. But as it becomes apparent that we are heading into a future that will not be consistent with any part of our recorded history, a wider and richer fictional discussion of the topic seems like exactly what sci-fi was invented for. How will the world change? Will it be ruined? Will the move to a low-carbon economy happen organically, or will we see authoritarianism and fascism take over only when things become desperate? Will societies adapt or collapse? I’m an optimist about AGW, I think it’s not going to be as bad as the worst case scenarios suggest and I think human society will respond, probably just a bit late and at greater expense than was necessary, but life will continue pretty much as it always has. Nonetheless, the world of the future will be different and the combined challenges of population growth, development and AGW open up vistas of apocalyptic catastrophe that, while they may make for disturbing public policy planning, make for an excellent potential role-playing setting. What would they look like?
Like the After the Flood campaign setting that I’ve been thinking about recently, apocalypses of the AGW kind offer gamers the ability to have a kind of canned Traveller universe in the world we’re familiar with, because the creeping imposition of rationing and constraints means that some societies will adapt and continue to develop, while others will collapse or go backward. If the apocalypse is just bad enough that the altruism of the adapters is challenged, or their accumulated (social and infrastructure) capital is depleted enough to make their situation fragile, then the world will fragment relative to the state it is in now, creating even greater gulfs in technology between the haves and have-nots, and making transition between them more difficult and dangerous. But unlike the After the Flood setting, a post-warming world won’t be quite so catastrophically environmentally challenging (maybe). So it offers the potential for apocalyptic adventuring with occasional havens of rest and peace – probably the best kind. However, under the worst case scenarios we see a global desert, ruled by road warriors and lunatics. Either situation is unattractive in the real world but very appealing in gaming. So let’s consider a few post-warming worlds for adventurers to explore.
The Collapsed Water World
This is the classic figment of AGW “alarmist” visions, and one that can be played up with a bit of sci-fi chucked into the mix. In this scenario, the campaign setting is perhaps 100 years from now, and in addition to Al Gore’s most fevered sea level rise (what, 60m?) we imagine a few simple positive feedbacks, such as reduced ice albedo and a bit of permafrost melting, to project the sea level rise up beyond reasonably expected norms – say about 200m. This completely changes the geography of the Earth, and with a bit of poetic license we could imagine quite exciting new settings: Indonesia becomes an archipelago of tiny islands, like Earthsea; Australia’s inland deserts flood, forming a shallow sea; Russia and parts of Asia are divided into new, more desperate entities (what would the Siberian archipelago look like?). Britain in this kind of scenario was described in the White Bird of Kinship series, in which the UK had divided into multiple small island countries, ruled over by a harsh and authoritarian church (there was a musician involved in a heretical movement, I recall). JG Ballard’s The Drowned World also possibly describes this kind of setting. This setting encourages maritime adventure, but the collapse of the population and nation-states of the existing world mean that much of the world will have been thrown back to a previous era – perhaps that of the mid-19th century – with occasional small countries retaining higher technology, artifacts available for discovery, and organizations gaining great power by hoarding old technology.
Such a setting gives a GM the opportunity to set a campaign on earth, but to fiddle with the geography pretty much at will, to have a semi-mediaeval science fantasy setting, and to populate it with a wide range of different societies and tech levels. The players can prosper through finding old artifacts and adventuring for more powerful forces, there will be new lands and kingdoms to explore but the world will largely retain the geography (and in many cases, the social orders) of now – just perhaps poorer and more devastated.
The Warring States Model
In this model the sea levels are largely irrelevant, but environmental and resource collapse have led to wars and chaos, and the late response to climate change has led to enforced energy poverty for much of society, at the same time as it has forced rapid technological change. Some societies have become winners in this new order, but most have lost out, falling into poverty, war and chaos. This kind of society might be what we see in Alita: Battle Angel or Appleseed, where a small community lives with extreme technology in a highly protected enclave while the world outside goes to hell in a hand basket. This is also, perhaps, the world of Judge Dredd (though the causes are different in all these cases). In this world the adventurers might be barbarians from one of the collapsed countries, or they might be agents for one of the survivors. Either way, there will be much conflict in this world, and adventures may derive from resource conflicts and the shady dealings of corporations, countries and rich individuals that are trying to get ahead in a harsh new world. It’s an ideal setting for a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk themed campaign.
The Ascendent South
Perhaps more interesting for its context, in this campaign global warming has devastated the nations of the North, but was far less destructive in the South, leaving the old South to become the new world powers. In this world Africa and latin America is where the new superpowers are gathered, and Europe, North America and much of Asia are in ruins, the home of multiple warring cities and tribes. The civilized peoples of the South ride out from their high-tech enclaves to exploit or aid these ruined nations, and vie with each other for supremacy in the new world. But with the environment more fragile, the world has become more dangerous. Perhaps also many of the countries of the South fell victim too, so that next to a super-advanced Ugandan power we find a huge expanse of starving and desperate Africans, warring with each other and desperately trying to form alliances with their stable neighbour.
Alternatively, with the collapse of the old order the South has reverted to older and more traditional structures of governance, so instead of seeing nation-states in Africa along current lines we see the empires of the old world, such as once stretched from Nigeria to the mediterranean, or over large parts of the southern half of the continent. With these new empires come new political fault lines, new resource wars, and very old imperial tensions – which the ruined nations of the north can only hope to benefit from, or become victims of.
The Full Reversion
In this model, the collapse of the environment took society with it, and after hundreds of years of chaos a completely new world order has emerged, based on new (or very old) technologies, with completely new social systems. Maybe it is a single nation for the whole world, ruled by a technological priesthood who hold much of society in chains; perhaps it is a couple of great empires with extremely authoritarian and regressive governments (theologies, monarchies and fascisms) that continually war with each other for the earth’s few remaining resources; perhaps the world has reverted to some stone age ruin, and looks more like the world of the Atlan saga or Julian May’s Jurassic world than the modern era. In this campaign setting global warming is really just an excuse to make a science fantasy campaign setting out of a newly primitivized earth, on the bones of the earth we already know.
In this setting, global warming either caused or was caused by the unleashing of mysterious arcane powers, and led to a new society ruled by magic and superstition. This was part of the pre-text for an old apocalypse campaign I ran years ago, although the apocalypse in this case was a direct satanic intervention on earth. In this case one could gild the lily to make the current crop of climate scientists (Mann, Hansen etc.) either heretical figures (because they are believed to be the evil wizards who caused the apocalypse) or saints (because they warned of its coming and tried to stop it). Maybe if they caused it they are still around, ruling post-apocalyptic mediaeval states from their position as immortal heads of an AGW priesthood – a denialist fantasy made true by Satan himself! Alternatively, all of the past is forgotten and the world has reverted to magic and faith, but one can occasionally dig up relics of the old world – along, perhaps, with the true story of how it fell apart and how it can be restored …
In this near-future campaign, the scientists of AGW have found a secret magic or technology that enables them to make any universally-held view become the new reality. For some reason (service to their alien masters?) they have decided to make AGW the new reality, and the PCs stumble somehow on this fact, and have to race to save the world from oblivion – or worse still, to prevent various churches from managing to get hold of the magic that makes mass beliefs come true. This campaign could fit in a whole range of other conspiracy theories – about moon landings and assassinations and the like – and potentially allow the slow introduction of magic into the world as the science cabal’s secrets become known to the PCs. It also allows a sequel campaign – if the PCs prevent the technology from being used, they enter a new campaign of spies and international intrigue as major governments pursue them to get hold of it; if they fail, they shift straight into the beginnings of the Mysterious Powers campaign. Or, they could use the technology to make any other campaign world of their choosing …
Post-apocalyptic fiction, movies and games are quite common, but I’m surprised at the dearth of specifically global-warming focused ones. Depending on how much one wants to play fast and loose with the science, it can provide a potentially rich backdrop for a post-apocalyptic setting, since it doesn’t just change human society, but changes the very environment in which that society lives – it’s like transplanting the human society to a new world, in the near future, but retaining the geography and many of the properties of this world. It also offers on the one hand a very mild form of apocalypse, characterized by nothing worse than population crash and technological regression; or, on the other hand, any level of extremity up to and including people being forced to live on a new version of Venus. Many of these settings are replete with adventure opportunities and, unlike the After the Flood campaign, don’t involve the kind of extreme terraforming that makes it difficult to imagine any hope in the world. I think this makes AGW a rich mine of possibilities for campaign settings and adventuring. I wonder why it hasn’t been explored more?